Abydos is perhaps Egypt’s most ancient necropolis, having been used for important burials since Predynastic times. The city was a popular pilgrimage spot for thousands of years, and pharaohs from all eras of Egyptian history constructed tombs and temples here. In fact, it was believed to be the resting place of the Lord of the Underworld himself, Osiris.
Today, while most of Abydos is off-limits to visitors, the spectacular Temple of Seti I is well worth the day trip from Luxor (more on getting there below). The reliefs here are arguably Egypt’s very finest, while the temple remains in great shape overall.
And despite being off-limits, visitors can get a view of a structure called the Osireion from up above. Constructed of huge rose granite monoliths, the real purpose of this supposed tomb, along with its true age, remains hotly debated today.
The Temple of Seti I
Seti I (r. 1290-1279 BC) was the first major king of the 19th Dynasty, taking the throne after the brief one-year reign of his father, Ramesses I. He built most of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak Temple and he also constructed a fine mortuary temple for himself on Luxor’s west bank. His tomb in the Valley of the Kings, meanwhile, is widely regarded as Egypt’s most beautiful.
But it’s his temple at Abydos that could be considered his greatest masterpiece. Not only are the carved reliefs throughout the temple breathtaking, but it’s also one of the best-preserved Egyptian temples that predates the Ptolemaic period. But what was Seti I’s intention behind building a new temple at Abydos, one of Egypt’s oldest cities?
While we can’t say for sure, it appears that Seti I had a few different things in mind. First and foremost, this temple was dedicated to Osiris.
Seti I was the first major ruler to control Egypt after the reign of Akhenaten, the ‘heretic king’ who attempted to end the ancient religious traditions. And while Akhenaten is infamous for defacing the names and images of Amun, his new religion also completely ignored the role of Osiris. Therefore, in the post-Amarna period, Seti I’s decision to dedicate a new temple to Osiris and the Osirian myths was likely no coincidence.
It’s also at Abydos that the very first king of a united Egypt, Narmer, was buried. And as we’ll see below, Seti I inscribed a list of pharaohs into the wall of his temple, establishing a symbolic link between his era and Egypt’s earliest rulers.
Furthermore, Seti I seemed determined to make a clean break with Amarna art, characteristics of which still lingered for years after Akhenaten’s reign. Seti I not only revived the traditional Egyptian art style, but his artisans implemented it with a beauty and grace never seen before or since.
With all things considered, we could call the Temple of Seti I at Abydos a temple consecrated to tradition itself.
Osiris: Lord of the Underworld
Osiris is one of ancient Egypt’s oldest and most important gods. He rules over the underworld, or duat, where all people go when they die.
But originally, according to legend, Osiris ruled as the primordial king of Egypt. He taught the Egyptians agriculture and religion, and then set out to teach the other nations.
While he was away, his brother-in-law Set conspired against him. Set crafted a wooden chest based on Osiris’s dimensions, and he offered to give it to anybody who could fit inside.
Upon his return, Osiris fell for the ploy, and Set fastened the box shut as Osiris lay inside. He then threw it into the river, after which Osiris’s wife (and sister) Isis tried her best to track it down.
Isis eventually managed to find and retrieve the box, bringing it back to Egypt. But Set found Osiris’s body and cut him into 14 pieces (or 26 according to some versions) which he scattered around Egypt. Again, Isis sprung into action and tracked all the pieces down, reassembling the body of her husband.
But one piece, the phallus, was missing, as it had been thrown into the river and was eaten by a fish. Isis then fastened an artificial phallus and through magic, breathed enough life into Osiris so that they could conceive a child.
Subsequently, Osiris became Lord of the Underworld. His son, Horus, then grew up and avenged his father’s death, defeating his uncle Set and taking the throne.
Symbolically speaking, Osiris represents the divine in mortal form. He also represents the eternal principle of process and regenerative cycles.
In Egyptian funerary traditions, the king was fully supposed to identify himself with Osiris after death. And after overcoming various challenges in the underworld, the king could merge with Horus. Only then could he be resurrected, experiencing eternal life in the company of the gods.
Osiris is often depicted as mummified and wearing the white crown of Lower Egypt (the north). He’s usually seen carrying the crook of a shepherd and a flail, a tool used to separate wheat from the chaff.
Notably, Abydos was originally associated with a dog-headed deity called Khentiamentiu. However, as Osiris took prominence in Egyptian mythology, Khentiamentiu came to be seen merely as one aspect of him.
Approaching the Temple
The white limestone Temple of Seti I was built in an unusual L-shape. Originally, there would’ve been a typical imposing pylon gate at the temple entrance, though it’s now completely missing.
Nowadays, the first thing visitors encounter is a long staircase consisting of 42 steps. The number is surely a reference to the 42 assessors of the duat, or underworld, the realm over which Osiris presides.
The outer court, which was finished by Seti I’s son Ramesses II, would’ve been lined entirely with gardens and ponds. But the area is largely in ruins today, and there are only a handful of relics and carvings strewn about.
Notice the smooth granite pillar which appears to have been made after the Dynastic Egyptian era. The stone was likely quarried from the Osireion behind the temple – a much easier option than shipping the granite from Aswan!
Approaching the temple, you’ll find more artwork completed by Ramesses II. Here and elsewhere, the sunken reliefs of Ramesses are immediately distinguishable from the raised reliefs of his father.
Most of the scenes in front are battle scenes. But to the left of the entrance, you can see Ramesses presenting a Maat statue (the goddess of cosmic order) to the triad of Osiris, Isis and Seti I. The symbolism here implies that Seti I has fully identified himself with Horus after death, and has thus achieved eternal life.
The temple entrance originally had seven openings which precisely aligned with the seven sanctuaries in the back. But for reasons unknown to us, Ramesses II decided to fill them up, leaving only a single opening in the center.
The Outer Hypostyle Hall
The first of two Hypostyle Halls was completed by Ramesses II. It consists of 24 pillars, while all of the reliefs were carved during Ramesses II’s reign.
Ramesses clearly lacked the meticulous eye for detail that his father had. He instead seemed more concerned with completing as many projects as possible. In fact, he turned out to be Egypt’s most prodigious ever king.
While by no means bad, the carvings in this room are nothing outstanding when compared with the rest of the temple.
But it’s here in this hall that you’ll find a very peculiar set of symbols. Standing in the center of the room, look up and to your left. In between the columns, you’ll see some hieroglyphs that don’t resemble hieroglyphs at all.
Looking closely, you’ll notice what appears to be a helicopter, a submarine and other modern vehicles! Unsurprisingly, these glyphs have inspired all sorts of theories, especially of the ‘ancient aliens’ variety.
Are these symbols evidence that the ancient Egyptians were visited by aliens of the future? Well, not quite.
The symbols are the result of Ramesses II’s usurpation of some of his father’s work. There were originally some hieroglyphs carved by Seti I into the same stone, which were then filled with plaster.
Ramesses II then recarved it with a new message. Eventually, however, the plaster fell out, leaving us with this unusual layering of different hieroglyphs.
While we have a rational explanation for the symbols, it’s still a bizarre coincidence that they turned out the way they did. But visitors shouldn’t let this one block of stone distract them from the remarkable artwork elsewhere.
The Inner Hypostyle Hall
The Inner Hypostyle Hall is where the real magic of the temple begins, as all of the reliefs here are originals by Seti I.
The hall contains 36 columns and the walls are entirely carved in intricate raised reliefs.
The subject matter of the scenes here and in other rooms are of the standard ceremonial variety. We see the king making offerings to various deities, along with multiple forms of each god. Nothing too unique.
Be that as it may, the extremely high level of detail is jaw-dropping. If it looks this good today, imagine how this temple would’ve appeared in Seti I’s time.
There are various small niches carved into the walls dedicated to particular gods. And as you’ll see all throughout the temple, deities like Isis, Osiris and Horus make frequent appearances.
Thankfully, the lighting at this temple is well-done, allowing for a good view of the reliefs without making things too bright.
Over by the wall to the right, notice the large djed column inscribed on the pillar. Djed columns represent the backbone of Osiris, along with the tree that suddenly grew out from under his coffin.
According to the original myth, this occurred after Set threw the wooden box into the river and it ended up in Byblos (present-day Lebanon). The local king then had the tree cut down, and he used the wood for a pillar in his palace.
Djed columns also represent the support of the living universe. Furthermore, they likely also represent subtle energy traveling up the spine.
The Osirian Sanctuaries
At the back of the Inner Hypostyle Hall is a series of seven vaulted sanctuaries. The three to the right, from right to left, are dedicated to Horus, Isis and Osiris.
The Osiris chapel then leads directly into another section of the temple called the Western Hall, which contains pillars and additional shrines.
We’ll be going over the first three sanctuaries dedicated to the Osirian triad followed by the Western Hall at the very back. We’ll then cover the remaining four vaulted sanctuaries.
Again, the imagery in these sanctuaries is largely ceremonial. The scenes depicted inside show various forms of each deity as well as the actual rituals and ceremonies that took place at the temple each day.
The first sanctuary, dedicated to Horus, shows both Horus and Seti I wearing a wide variety of different crowns and costumes.
In the next shrine, we see Horus’s mother, Isis, wearing different types of headgear as well. Meanwhile, Seti I presents her with all sorts of offerings. One could easily spend ages in any one sanctuary getting lost in the intricate details.
The Osiris sanctuary retains much of its original color. Yet again, we can see the rich variety of symbols the Egyptians used as part of their rituals.
Surely, the deeper significance of the various outfits and poses would’ve been something only understood by a small group of initiates. One wonders how long it would’ve taken the priest to memorize and comprehend each symbol adorning the walls.
Curiously, despite the wide variety of headgear we see depicted in Egyptian temple art, a real-life example of an Egyptian crown has never been found.
The Western Hall
The Osiris sanctuary leads directly into another room called the Western Hall. It consists of ten columns, a number commonly associated with Horus.
Again, we see the king presenting offerings to various deities. Some less common beings make appearances here, including the Benu bird and Heqet the frog.
Like the Osiris sanctuary, many of these carvings retain their original color, making this one of the most stunning sections of the entire temple.
Along the walls, note the huge djed pillar, a pair of crocodiles representing Sobek, and Horus as a falcon wearing a crown.
Over to the right are a set of three shrines yet again dedicated to Horus/Isis/Osiris. Various other deities also make appearances, and the level of detail in each shrine is as striking as usual.
On the opposite side, the Western Hall leads into another smaller hall with four columns. There are various niches in the walls, but many of the reliefs in this room are damaged and without color.
Next, backtrack through the Osiris sanctuary and into the Inner Hypostyle Hall.
The Remaining Sanctuaries
Returning to the Inner Hypostyle Hall, there are four remaining sanctuaries past the sanctuary of Osiris.
The fourth is dedicated to Amun. Amun, the ‘invisible force’ behind all of creation, takes center stage at nearly all New Kingdom temples. But anybody familiar with the Amarna period will know that the blue god was the prime target of Akhenaten’s religious revolution.
While Tutankhamun had already revived the cult of Amun during his reign, Seti I’s temple at Abydos was the first major temple built in the post-Amarna era.
Accordingly he made sure to place Amun’s sanctuary in the very center.
The next three chapels are dedicated to Ptah, Re-Horakhty (Horus on the Horizon) and Seti I himself. Seti I’s chapel breaks some of the monotony, as it contains several scenes which stand out from the rest.
In one scene, we see the king in the presence of Seshat, the consort of Thoth, who writes down Seti’s name for eternity.
Elsewhere, we see Seti receiving a long list of offerings from Thoth, and on the opposite side is a high priest adorned in panther skin.
On either side of the sanctuary are jackal-headed deities which represent Lower Egypt and hawk-headed gods representing Upper Egypt.
Chapel of Ptah / Sokar / Nefertum
From the Hypostyle Hall you can access an additional pillared chapel dedicated to Ptah, Sokar and Nefertum. The Egyptians liked to worship gods in triads. And Ptah, the divine architect and patron deity of Memphis, was involved in a couple of them.
One of Ptah’s triads consisted of him and his consort Sekhmet and their son Nefertum (learn more here). Another important triad, meanwhile, was made up of Ptah, Sokar and Osiris.
Sokar was a hawk-headed deity in control of the deepest and darkest part of the duat. Osiris then plays the role of the giver of form.
The metaphysical relationship of this triad is rather complex and difficult to fully grasp. In any case, visitors can still enjoy the beautiful scenes presented throughout the hall.
Near the doorway is a depiction of an important scene from the Osiris myth. Osiris lays dead but erect, with Isis hovering over him as a falcon.
As we know, this is how Isis conceives Horus. But we see a fully grown Horus at his father’s feet. Why? This is because Horus (and all the Egyptian deities) represent eternal principles. With that in mind, Horus is actually as old as his parents.
In the back of this hall are two additional smaller chapels – one for Sokar and one for Nefertum.
When finished, head back to the Inner Hypostyle Hall and walk into the next entrance leading to the King’s Gallery.
The Abydos Kings List
The famous Abydos Kings List is a compilation of Egyptian pharaohs from the time of Narmer, the first pharaoh of a united Egypt. And as mentioned above, Narmer was buried at Abydos.
We can surmise, then, that Seti I intended to link himself with the inaugural pharaoh by building a temple here and compiling this list.
This was likely deemed of crucial importance following the Amarna period. And unsurprisingly, Akhenaten is absent from Seti’s list. But more surprising is that Akhenaten’s successor, Tutankhamun, is also absent! This is in spite of him reviving the cult of Amun and moving the capital back to Thebes.
While we don’t know for sure, perhaps Seti I felt that King Tut hadn’t gone far enough to undo the damage caused by his father. Or perhaps he was merely guilty by association.
Tutankhamun’s successor, Ay, is also missing from the list. So, after the reign of Amenhotep III, the list jumps straight to Horemheb, the final king of the 18th Dynasty.
Also absent from the Abydos Kings List is Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh who ruled during the 18th Dynasty. And the foreign Hyksos rulers in control of Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period have been omitted as well.
Seti’s list has been extremely important for the field of Egyptology, as it’s one of only several (mostly) complete lists of pharaohs that the Egyptians compiled. (The ancient Egyptians weren’t big on history for history’s sake.) The list is also one of the only to contain the names of obscure pharaohs who ruled during the First Intermediate Period.
Interestingly, the list includes a rite inscribed over and over again for every single king. It’s a prayer for the deceased which also wishes for the prosperity of Upper and Lower Egypt.
To the left of the list we see carvings of Seti I and a young Ramesses II. And on the opposite wall we can see the duo again pouring libations on an altar.
At the opposite end of the hallway is an unfinished pillared hallway, in which the reliefs were clearly started by Ramesses II. And the hallway which leads out back is entirely adorned in Ramesses II’s artwork as well.
On the right-hand side of the hallway, we can see the king and the young prince (Merenptah) taming a wild bull in front of Wepwawet and Upuat, a form of Anubis. The wild bull likely represents untamed sexual energy, something which must be mastered for spiritual progress.
Elsewhere, we can see captured geese being offered to Amun. Geese were a symbol of Amun, but the scene is very reminiscent of the same bird-netting scenes depicted all over non-royal tombs of the Old Kingdom.
The scene’s presence here is proof that those older tomb carvings weren’t just ‘charming’ scenes from everyday life, but had a deeper symbolic significance. In this case, bird netting likely symbolized the need for control over one’s volatile nature
Walking out of the hallway, you’ll then find yourself outside and in front of one of Egypt’s most mysterious constructions.
What we now call the Osireion is shrouded in mystery. Many Egyptologists claim that it was built by Seti I or by his grandson Merenptah, who was responsible for some of the carvings. But the structure is stylistically very different from anything else built during the New Kingdom.
The only thing like it can be found at Valley Temple of Khafre at Giza, just in front of the Sphinx. It dates back to the 4th Dynasty, though many believe the temple could be older than Egyptologists claim.
The Osireion consists of large square rose granite pillars, most of which are completely void of any carvings or inscriptions. Some of the pillars are as heavy as 100 tons. And like all granite in Egypt, they had to be transported all the way from Aswan.
Situated below ground level, the Osireion was flooded with murky green water for years before archaeologists managed to pump it out. Despite this, the Osiereion is still sadly off-limits to visitors, and you can only get a look at it from above. I was even scolded by the guard just for walking closer to the edge to take photos!
Visiting the Osereion isn’t completely impossible, however. But you’ll need to be part of some tour group with special permission, and such tours don’t come cheap. Fortunately, there’s some fantastic video footage of the complete structure on YouTube, which you can check out here.
Researchers suggest that the Osireion was regarded by the Egyptians as the tomb of Osiris himself. There are no writings that explicitly mention this, however.
But there are scenes from the Book of Gates which closely resemble the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. We know that Merenptah was responsible for these carvings. But that doesn’t, of course, mean that he built the whole thing.
Nevertheless, despite the major stylistic differences between the Osireion and other New Kingdom monuments, many Egyptologist give Merenptah all the credit. But why would he build it at such a low level?
In my opinion, Seti I chose this particular spot of Abydos for his temple because the Osireion was already there. The Egyptians, all throughout their history, regularly renovated older monuments while adding new artwork.
Even though you can’t get up close, look carefully and you’ll see some Flower of Life symbols on the inside of one of the monoliths. For those unfamiliar, the Flower of Life is one of the most important symbols of sacred geometry.
To put it simply, encoded within this one symbol are numerous patterns of creation itself. Some of them include patterns like the Seed of Life, the Egg of Life and the Tree of Life. These patterns are found again and again in nature and within the human body.
Sacred geometry is a complicated topic beyond the scope of this Abydos temple guide. But the ancient Egyptians took it very seriously, and based much of their architecture and art on special proportions which they regarded as sacred.
Pythagoras was greatly inspired by the Egyptians and spent time studying there. While we don’t know exactly when the Flower of Life was painted at Abydos, Greek text can be spotted nearby, indicating sometime during the Ptolemaic era.
Looking closely, you can also see that the patterns were painted rather than carved.
The Temple of Ramesses II
Several hundred meters north of main temple is an entirely separate temple built by Ramesses II. The main structure is largely in ruin, though many of the reliefs remain intact.
But as these were all done by Ramesses and not his father, nothing here is as impressive as what you can see in the main temple. Be that as it may, this temple is still worth a look.
Notably, this is believed to be Ramesses II’s very first temple. Therefore, he must’ve completed it quite early on in his 67-year reign!
Throughout the temple, you’ll see scenes representing the Battle of Kadesh, carvings of Hapi the Nile River god, and even a carving of Ramesses suckling a cow representing Hathor.
But like his father’s temple, the main deity worshipped here was Osiris.
Abydos can be visited as a day trip from Luxor, and is almost always combined with a visit to Dendera, a temple from the Ptolemaic era. As these two temples are arguably Egypt’s very finest, this day trip is absolutely essential for all visitors to Luxor.
Sadly, the journey is much more expensive and complicated than most people would imagine. Despite the popularity of the temples, there are no organized group day trips from Luxor. That means you’ll have to arrange a private driver to take you.
I was staying on the west bank of Luxor, and I arranged the trip through a company called Classic Tour Services which has an office there. Everything went smoothly and I’d recommend them to anyone staying on the west bank.
I paid a little over $100 USD, which was a lot more than I was expecting to pay before arriving in Luxor. This was just for a driver and no guide (which is how I prefer it, as I had a great guide book with me).
Many of the prices mentioned on Tripadvisor, even from a couple years ago, are no longer relevant. To compare prices, I asked at a few other tourism offices and at my hotel. And I also chatted with some private drivers by the river. But nobody was quoting me under $100 for both temples.
Also, be careful of cheap tours on Viator. I originally booked a trip for $70 and thought I was getting a great deal. That is until they cancelled on me just two days before with no explanation!
The reason the day trip is so expensive is partly due to the security situation. Part of the money you pay covers the police escort required to visit the area as a foreigner. I’m not quite sure what the deal is, but there is a very heavy security presence around both temples and especially at Abydos. Apparently, it’s been this way for years.
Before the trip, you’ll need to provide your passport information to the driver or tour company a couple days in advance. They’re then supposed to pass this info onto the police.
During the journey, I wasn’t asked by any officers to show my ID, though they did repeatedly ask my driver where I was from. He also got repeated calls throughout the day to confirm our location. Supposedly, they’re worried about a possible abduction or anything that would be bad PR for Egypt’s tourism industry.
After my visit to the temple, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the Pyramid of Ahmose (the last ever built in Egypt) which is supposed to be less than a 10-minute drive down the road from the Temple of Seti I. Sadly, the officers wouldn’t even give us permission to drive that way, and we were forced to drive directly back to the highway the same way we came.
I’ve read on some blogs and also sites like Wikitravel that taking the train is a viable option. However, after looking more into it and reading various peoples’ comments on the Tripadvisor Egypt forums, this seems like a bad idea.
Train travel is fine for long distances (like Cairo to Luxor), but is highly unreliable for day trips. There are often only a couple trains a day and they’re commonly late. On top of this, the whole security situation makes the matter much more complicated.
Some web sites make it seem like it’s no big deal to take the train and then hire a local taxi. But after seeing the incredibly heavy security presence at Abydos, I think it’s best to play it safe and just hire a reputable driver from Luxor.
It’s likely that somebody just happened to get lucky one time and are now spreading the info online as if anyone can copy what they did. But experienced visitors to Egypt seem to unanimously advise against the train for Dendera and Abydos.
In Luxor, the east and west banks of the Nile River couldn’t be more different. The east is the bustling city center where most of the hotels and restaurants are located. This is where you’ll find the train station and the Luxor Museum. And of course, Karnak and Luxor Temples.
The west bank is much quieter and less developed. But overall, the west bank has more tourist attractions. Not only are all the tombs here, but there are plenty of mortuary temples to visit as well. While you can see everything on the east bank in a single day, you’ll need two or three full days to explore everything on the west bank.
That’s why I recommend staying on the west bank. And as the area gradually develops, there are a lot more hotels to choose from nowadays.
Overall, the west bank is pretty spread out. But if you stay close to the ferry port, you’ll get the best of both worlds. Not only will you get a head start on visiting the west bank attractions each morning, but getting to the east side and back will be easy as well.
To really make the most of your time in Luxor, I recommend staying on the west bank, getting the Luxor Pass (see above) and renting a bicycle. You can rent a bicycle for the day from numerous west bank shops at somewhere between 30 – 50 EGP.
I stayed at a place called Sunflower Guest House which was right by the ferry port. The rooms were spacious and clean and I had no issues with my stay. But after my arrival, I discovered that there are plenty of other accommodation options right nearby.